Riding the heels of her Sundance Grand Jury win for this summer’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post," Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s six-episode series “The Bisexual” debuted on Hulu in November with surprisingly little to no fanfare.
In fact, although I was aware of Akhavan and her work following an interview she did with Terry Gross, I had no idea that she was the director, writer and leading actress of “The Bisexual” until the dramedy reared its head in my Hulu “Suggested for You” tab (not surprising given the three lackluster seasons of “The L Word” I’d binge-watched over the summer). Although the show’s general vibe of urban hipsterdom may come across as uninspired if not semi-pretentious to the wary outsider, it conceals a biting wit and care of character that merits the show more public attention than it’s received thus far.
The show follows thirty-something Leila (Akhavan), the eponymous bisexual and a tech innovator launching a fashion app with her longtime partner, Sadie (the lovely Maxine Peake, who almost single-handedly carried an entire episode of “Black Mirror” last year). When Sadie unexpectedly and extemporaneously proposes marriage, Leila balks and ends up moving out, too afraid to commit.
Leila, a once-confident wearer of the “lesbian” label, soon begins experimenting with men and eventually comes to terms with her bisexuality. Although her sexual partners come and go, Leila’s regular posse includes Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a novelist still trying to get his mojo back a decade after the publication of his renowned debut, and Deniz (Saskia Chana), a Turkish-British lesbian who fiercely loves both women and her conservative family.
Akhavan’s mainstay in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is her knack for forging complex character out of the limited screen time that is budgeted to her, a strength that she flexes once again in “The Bisexual.” As Leila embarks on her belated bildungsroman with the presumption that she knows (and can thereby judge) the people around her, the viewer’s first encounters with characters like Deniz and Gabe involve their settling into tropes that we know and are familiar with: Deniz is the counterpoint to Leila’s dry yet endearing humor, deadpan with a take-no-prisoners candor, while Gabe is the egocentric straight white man whose ignorance and all-around cluelessness make him the brunt of a good few jokes.
Although Leila’s interactions with these one-dimensional character sketches sparks comedic chemistry and yields a couple of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, what Akhavan works her magic on best is the deconstruction of these cinematic stereotypes. Gabe may be your classic downtrodden white male writer, but his perennial problem is not that he needs to find his “leading lady,” as one might think, but rather that he must free himself from the smothering affection-bordering-manipulation of his older sister. And what Leila sees as a problem for Deniz — her staying in the closet, her on-hold dreams of becoming a chef — are in fact not a problem at all for the latter, who steadfastly asserts that she finds more happiness in family unity than in regretless individuality. The show's characters shine and sparkle in their own way because Akhavan, ultimately, gives them their due.
One of the takeaways of “The Bisexual” is that people are more complex and flawed than we make them out to be, or than we’ll sometimes even permit them to be. It’s a message that might have gone without saying 10, 20 years ago when there were too few queer characters on screen for there to be a standard of “good representation” to compare them to. But in an era where we are asked to scrutinize ourselves, and the media we consume, more closely than we ever have before, this kind of message takes on a political tinge. No character can, or should, be perfect, can, or should, be expected to align with feminist or queer theorist principles to a tee, Akhavan seems to imply, because no real person could possibly do so. Akhavan is not trying to meet any standard of "good representation." Being an egalitarian in the abstract guarantees nothing in actuality.
This is in no way to suggest that “The Bisexual” is in fact trying to make such a point let alone spell it out for the viewer through dialogue or narrative discourse. Rather, the characters wear their contradictions like battered shoes that are too comfortably worn in to throw away. They are imperfect and problematic and they know it, yet they are not punished for being so. Although Leila comes across as surefire, honest and quick to call people out, she is no model activist. She maintains a steadfast allegiance to the “lesbian” label and all the political trappings that come with it (at one point battering Gabe with the line, “As soon as we don’t fit your fantasy wet dream, we're man-hating dykes?”), but the only thing that consoles her after finding out that her ex-girlfriend and office secretary are sleeping together is Gabe’s assurance that she’s more attractive than them both. In a fantastic exchange with Gabe on whether she should get rid of her armpit hair, Leila rightly notes, “But it shouldn’t be what girls like, it should be what I like.” When Gabe asks in response to “What do you like?” she merely sighs, “I have no f*cking clue.”
Perhaps the tagline of “The Bisexual” should be “I have no clue,” a perfectly imprecise signifier for the show’s mainstay messiness. Everything is messy: the sex, the characters, the failed attempts at raw human connection. But that’s the best part about the show, because it’s what makes the characters more empathetic and undeniably, substantively real. Although the perennial issue is bisexuality — what the show’s promotional materials call “the last taboo” — you won’t find many instances of the characters grappling with it in the abstract. Instead, they often trade in whatever astute cultural generalizations they may have on the topic for observations that are at once intimate and relative.
But the show’s greatest strength sometimes weighs heavy during its three hours of screen time. Some scenes could do with a trim (i.e. the endless hours the characters spend in various London nightclubs), while others could be cut altogether (i.e. a bizarre performance art piece that beguiles Leila, Gabe and Deniz into shedding a few tears). Akhavan’s forte is feature-length films, and her foray into television feels like a movie that was stretched and pulled to encompass three hours. Nonetheless, all in all, the show is a diamond in the rough, a three hours well-spent. If you, like Leila, are unsure of where you’re going and what (or more aptly, who) you want, “The Bisexual” will warm you up and will bestow you with at least a couple of good laughs, too.
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